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EFFECTS OF AGE ON DETECTION OF EMOTION

positive low arousal, neutral, negative low arousal, negative high arousal]) repeated measures

ANOVA.2 Both the age group, F(1, 46) = 540.32, p < .001, p2 = .92, and the target category,

F(4, 184) = 8.98, p < .001, p2 = .16, main effects were significant, as well as the Age Group

Target Category interaction, F(4, 184) = 3.59, p = .008, p2 = .07. This interaction appeared to

reflect the fact that for the younger adults, positive high arousal targets were detected faster than

targets from all other categories, ts(23) < 1.90, p < .001, with no other target categories

differing significantly from one another (although there were trends for negative high arousal

and negative low arousal targets to be detected more rapidly than neutral targets (p < .12). For

older adults, all emotional categories of targets were detected more rapidly than were neutral

targets, ts(23) > 2.56, p < .017, and RTs to the different emotion categories of targets did not

differ significantly from one another. Thus, these results provided some evidence that older

adults may show a broader advantage for detection of any type of emotional information,

whereas young adults benefit may be more narrowly restricted to only certain categories of

emotional information.

Discussion

As outlined previously, there were three plausible alternatives for young and older adults

performance on the visual search task: The two age groups could show a similar pattern of

enhanced detection of emotional information, older adults could show a greater advantage for

emotional detection than young adults, or older adults could show a greater facilitation than

young adults only for the detection of positive information The results lent some support to the

first two alternatives, but no evidence was found to support the third alternative.
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EFFECTS OF AGE ON DETECTION OF EMOTION

In line with the first alternative, no effects of age were found when the influence of valence and

arousal on target detection times was examined; both age groups showed only an arousal effect.

This result is consistent with prior studies that indicated that arousing information can be

detected rapidly and automatically by young adults (Anderson, Christoff, Panitz, De Rosa, &

Gabrieli, 2003; Ohman & Mineka, 2001) and that older adults, like younger adults, continue to

display a threat detection advantage when searching for negative facial targets in arrays of

positive and neutral distractors (Hahn et al., 2006; Mather & Knight, 2006). Given the relative

preservation of automatic processing with aging (Fleischman, Wilson, Gabrieli, Bienias, &

Bennett, 2004; Jennings & Jacoby, 1993), it makes sense that older adults would remain able to

take advantage of these automatic alerting systems for detecting high arousal information.

However, despite the similarity in arousal-mediated effects on detection between the two

age groups, the present study did provide some evidence for age-related change (specifically,

age-related enhancement) in the detection of emotional information. When examining RTs for

the five categories of emotional targets, younger adults were more efficient in detecting positive

high arousal images (as presented in Table 2), whereas older adults displayed an overall

advantage for detecting all emotional images compared with neutral images. This pattern

suggests a broader influence of emotion on older adults detection of stimuli, providing support

for the hypothesis that as individuals age, emotional information becomes more salient.

It is interesting that this second set of findings is clearly inconsistent with the hypothesis

that the positivity effect in older adults operates at relatively automatic stages of information

processing, given that no effects of valence were observed in older adults detection speed. In the
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EFFECTS OF AGE ON DETECTION OF EMOTION

present study, older adults were equally fast to detect positive and negative information,

consistent with prior research that indicated that older adults often attend equally to positive and

negative stimuli (Rosler et al., 2005). Although the pattern of results for the young adults has

differed across studiesin the present study and in some past research, young adults have shown

facilitated detection of positive information (e.g., Anderson, 2005; Calvo & Lang, 2004; Carretie

et al., 2004; Juth et al., 2005; Nummenmaa et al., 2006), whereas in other studies, young adults

have shown an advantage for negative information (e.g., Armony & Dolan, 2002; Hansen &

Hansen, 1988; Mogg, Bradley, de Bono, & Painter, 1997; Pratto & John, 1991; Reimann &

McNally, 1995; Williams, Mathews, & MacLeod, 1996)what is important to note is that the

older adults detected both positive and negative stimuli at equal rates. This equivalent detection

of positive and negative information provides evidence that older adults display an advantage for

the detection of emotional information that is not valence-specific.

Thus, although younger and older adults exhibited somewhat divergent patterns of

emotional detection on a task reliant on early, relatively automatic stages of processing, we

found no evidence of an age-related positivity effect. The lack of a positivity focus in the older

adults is in keeping with the proposal (e.g., Mather & Knight, 2006) that the positivity effect

does not arise through automatic attentional influences. Rather, when this effect is observed in

older adults, it is likely due to age-related changes in emotion regulation goals that operate at

later stages of processing (i.e., during consciously controlled processing), once information has

been attended to and once the emotional nature of the stimulus has been discerned.
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EFFECTS OF AGE ON DETECTION OF EMOTION

Although we cannot conclusively say that the current task relies strictly on automatic

processes, there are two lines of evidence suggesting that the construct examined in the current

research examines relatively automatic processing. First, in their previous work, Ohman et al.

(2001) compared RTs with both 2 2 and 3 3 arrays. No significant RT differences based on

the number of images presented in the arrays were found. Second, in both Ohman et al.s (2001)

study and the present study, analyses were performed to examine the influence of target location

on RT. Across both studies, and across both age groups in the current work, emotional targets

were detected more quickly than were neutral targets, regardless of their location. Together,

these findings suggest that task performance is dependent on relatively automatic detection

processes rather than on controlled search processes.

Although further work is required to gain a more complete understanding of the age-

related changes in the early processing of emotional information, our findings indicate that

young and older adults are similar in their early detection of emotional images. ). The

current study provides further evidence that mechanisms associated with relatively automatic

processing of emotional images are well maintained throughout the latter portion of the life span

(Fleischman et al., 2004; Jennings & Jacoby, 1993; Leclerc & Hess, 2005It is critical that,

although there is evidence for a positive focus in older adults controlled processing of emotional

information (e.g., Carstensen & Mikels, 2005; Charles et al., 2003; Mather & Knight, 2005), the

present results suggest that the tendency to focus on the positive does not always arise when

tasks require relatively automatic and rapid detection of information in the environment.
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EFFECTS OF AGE ON DETECTION OF EMOTION

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Footnotes
1
Analyses of covariance were conducted with these covariates, with no resulting

influences of these variables on the pattern or magnitude of the results.


2
These data were also analyzed with a 2 5 ANOVA to examine the effect of target

category when presented only in arrays containing neutral images, with the results remaining

qualitatively the same. More broadly, the effects of emotion on target detection were not

qualitatively impacted by the distractor category.